In a scene from Cuckoo Earth Cloud, a couple of Renaissance scribes from the Italian city of Urbino traveled to Constantinople in search of ancient texts. The Ottoman army advances every day and such manuscripts may be lost or destroyed in the coming siege. Meet an orphan girl who volunteers to search for them, they explain what they are looking for. What they want most, they say, “is a story that contains the whole world.” “And the splendours beyond,” adds the other. “A book of all things. ”
Anthony Doerr set out to write such a book. The maximalist style of his third novel has been familiar since his last, All the light that we can’t see, a successful page turner set during World War II, which won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. It was a box-puzzle of a book, written in fragmented chapters artfully put together to arrive at a complex conclusion and unlikely.
Cuckoo Earth Cloud go further. The plot spans thousands of years and its characters come from very different literary traditions. Among them are Anna, the orphan scavenger of books; Zeno, an American veteran living in present-day Idaho; and, some time later, Konstance, a teenage girl trapped in the Argos spacecraft, made her way to a distant planet that will be humanity’s new home. Doerr calls it “my attempt at a literary-science-fiction-mystery-young-adult-historical-morality novel.”
Connecting this disparate cast is a fable, invented by Doerr but attributed to the 1st century Greek writer Antonius Diogenes, about a foolish shepherd. Tired of his life working in the fields, the shepherd comes across a troupe of actors in a village square playing the comedy of Aristophanes The birds. Drunk, he confuses their talk about “Cloud Cuckoo Land”, a wonderful city built by birds between sky and earth, for a real place and embarks on an absurd lifelong quest to find it.
Each of Doerr’s characters come across the story of the Shepherd’s Quest in one form or another – engraved on wooden tablets; transcribed in a codex on vellum; or in the scenario of a children’s play. For everyone, he becomes a talisman and everyone does their part to save it from destruction. The text is saved from a tomb; smuggled out of a burning city; stored in a hollow tree; digitized and downloaded into the public domain; hidden with code splices in a virtual library. And so on, until he has traveled through space and time to Konstance in his spaceship.
All the light that we can’t see Not everyone liked it: some critics found it too sentimental and implausible, too flowery, too type dependent. Perhaps as a response, Cuckoo Earth Cloud double on the same techniques and the same style. Again, the parallel narratives are mixed up into short chapters giving the clever impression of having been loosely put together. Here too, it was the overt sentimentality that annoyed. But this time, in a book that celebrates the art of storytelling and defends the captivating, the gullible and the naive, that style rings true.
Whether the City of Shepherds in the Clouds is a true utopia or a madman’s paradise is a question Doerr leaves open. Meanwhile, the novel at large moves from one failing world to another. Doerr’s characters are all dreamers looking for a better place. All grapple with the fragility of the times they live in, and Doerr’s great achievement is to create a keen sense of the urgency of the present moment in each era.
The collapse of Constantinople in the last days of the Byzantine Empire seems as terribly modern and doomed to its inhabitants as the climate-ravaged planet does to figures today. The two seem incomprehensibly ancient to Konstance, speeding through space. Earth is a place she has never seen. Her teammates speak of it as a desert they had the chance to escape from, but she can’t wait to come back and spends her days surveying the virtual atlas of Argos, forced to always look back, indifferent to the destination of the vessel.
Always present is the Greek concept of nostos, “Homecoming” or a homecoming song that glorifies the return of a hero. The power of nostos, Doerr wants us to understand, has never been so much on the content of the song as on the fact that it is still sung. Doerr once said he had “the terror of erasure” and this book is a hymn to the preservation of the written word.
Cuckoo Earth Cloud is dedicated to the librarians of the past and the future: the keepers of those words. Yet while he is concerned with commemorating specific texts lost in history by accident or willful destruction, Doerr also wants to argue that “all times and all stories [are] one and the same at the end ”. The survival of his shepherd’s fable through the ages becomes proof of this conviction. Like the best fables, its message may seem trite, but the result is also ingenious, hopeful, and utterly absorbing.
Cuckoo Earth Cloud by Anthony Doerr, Fourth Power £ 20 / Scribner $ 30, 640 pages
Cordelia Jenkins is the FT’s Deputy Opinion Writer
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